The following is an analysis of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which is easily one of the most recognised of his poetry, particularly the first several lines. In total, it is believed that Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, in addition to the thirty-seven plays that are also attributed to him. Many believe Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to two different people he may have known. The first 126 sonnets seem to be speaking to a young man with whom Shakespeare was very close. As a result of this, much has been speculated about The Bard’s sexuality; it is to this young man that Sonnet 116 is addressed. The other sonnets Shakespeare wrote are written to a mysterious woman whose identity is unknown. Scholars have referred to her simply as the Dark Woman, and must has been written about her identity.
Summary of Sonnet 116
This is a true Shakespearean sonnet, also referred to as an Elizabethan or English sonnet. This type of sonnet contains fourteen lines, which are separated into three quatrains (four lines) and end with a rhyming couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. Like most of Shakespeare’s works, this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, which means each line consists of ten syllables, and within those ten syllables, there are five pairs, which are called iambs (one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable). In this sonnet, the speaker is ruminating on love. He says that love never changes, and if it does, it was not true or real in the first place. He compares love to a star that is always seen and never changing. It is real and permanent, and it is something on which a person can count. Even though the people in love may change as time passes, their love will not. The speaker closes by saying if he is wrong about this, no man has ever truly loved before.
Analysis of Sonnet 116
While this sonnet is clumped in with the other sonnets that are assumed to be dedicated to an unknown young man in Shakespeare’s life, this poem does not seem to directly address anyone. In fact, this poem seems to be the speaker’s—in this case, perhaps Shakespeare—ruminations on love and what it is. The best way to analyse Shakespeare’s sonnets is to examine them line-by-line, which is what will follow.
In the first two lines, Shakespeare writes, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments.” These lines are perhaps the most famous in the history of poetry, regardless of whether or not one recognizes them as belonging to Shakespeare. Straight away, Shakespeare uses the metaphor of marriage to compare it to true, real love. He is saying that there is no reason why two people who truly love should not be together; nothing should stand in their way. Perhaps he is speaking about his feelings for the unknown young man for whom the sonnet is written. Shakespeare was unhappily married to Anne Hathaway, and so perhaps he was rationalising his feelings for the young man by stating there was no reason, even if one is already married, that two people who are truly in love should not be together. The second half of the second line begins a new thought, which is then carried on into the third and fourth lines. He writes, “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove.” Shakespeare is continuing with his thought that true love conquers all. In these lines, the speaker is telling the reader that if love changes, it is not truly love because if it changes, or if someone tries to “remove” it, nothing will change it. Love does not stop just because something is altered. As clichéd as it sounds, true love, real love, lasts forever.
The second quatrain begins with some vivid and beautiful imagery, and it continues with the final thought pondered in the first quatrain. Now that Shakespeare has established what love is not—fleeting and ever-changing—he can now tell us what love is. He writes, “O no, it is an ever fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken…” Here, Shakespeare tells his readers that love is something that does not shift, change, or move; it is constant and in the same place, and it can weather even the most harrowing of storms, or tempests and is never even shaken, let alone defeated. While weak, it can be argued here that Shakespeare decides to personify love, since it is something that is intangible and not something that can be defeated by something tangible, such as a storm. In the next line, Shakespeare uses the metaphor of the North Star to discuss love. He writes, “It is the star to every wand’ring bark,/Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. To Shakespeare, love is the star that guides every bark, or ship, on the water, and while it is priceless, it can be measured. These two lines are interesting and worth noting. Shakespeare concedes that love’s worth is not known, but he says it can be measured. How, he neglects to tell his reader, but perhaps he is assuming the reader will understand the different ways in which one can measure love: through time and actions. With that thought, the second quatrain ends.
The third quatrain parallels the first, and Shakespeare returns to telling his readers what love is not. He writes, “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his bending sickle’s compass come…” Notice the capitalization of the word “Time.” Shakespeare is personifying time as a person, specifically, Death. He says that love is not the fool of time. One’s rosy lips and cheeks will certainly pale with age, as “his bending sickle’s compass come.” Shakespeare’s diction is important here, particularly with his use of the word “sickle.” Who is the person with whom the sickle is most greatly associated? Death. We are assured here that Death will certainly come, but that will not stop love. It may kill the lover, but the love itself is eternal. This thought is continued in the lines eleven and twelve, the final two lines of the third quatrain. Shakespeare writes, “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” He is simply stating here that love does not change over the course of time; instead, it continues on even after the world has ended (“the edge of doom”).
Shakespeare uses lines thirteen and fourteen, the final couplet of the poem, to assert just how truly he believes that love is everlasting and conquers all. He writes, “If this be error and upon me proved/I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Shakespeare is telling his reader that if someone proves he is wrong about love, then he never wrote the following words and no man ever loved. He is conveying here that if his words are untrue, nothing else would exist. The words he just wrote would have never been written, and no man would have ever loved before. He is adamant about this, and his tough words are what strengthen the sonnet itself. The speaker and poet himself are convinced that love is real, true, and everlasting.
Historical Background of Sonnet 116
Many believe the mysterious young man for whom this and many other of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written was the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesly. Wriothesly was Shakespeare’s patron, and The Bard’s Venus and Adonis and Tarquin and Lucrece were both dedicated to the young man.